Ridge & Furrow Cultivation

Agriculture in the Hundred of Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire


Ridge and Furrow in BG Tithe Field 261

Ridge and furrow earthworks in a field in Broughton Gifford

Ridge and furrow is a feature of how the land was worked in the Middle Ages. Large common fields were worked in narrow strips of land in different ownerships, usually of a furlong (furrow-long, 220 yards) in length. Ploughs at that time were pulled by teams of up to eight oxen and had only one share (the part that cuts into the soil) and a mouldboard that turned the soil over to the right hand side. The plough was worked across a field in one direction and the whole team and plough turned at the end and worked back again. The effect of this was to turn the soil inwards and build up ridges with deep furrows in between. On damp ground, the furrows acted to drain the soil of the ridges. At the ends of the strips was the headland, a piece of land on which the oxen were turned to the left, ready to make the next cut. Often the turning resulted in a long reverse S-shape to the strips.

Traces of ridge and furrow are usually found where former arable land has been turned over to pasture and so has not been destroyed by later ploughing. Many fields in the parish of Broughton Gifford preserve traces, some quite substantial, showing that the area was once much more intensively cultivated. The change to a pasture regime may have been a result of a shortage of labour following the Black Death in the 1340s, and/or may have been driven by the greater profits that could be made from the wool trade. The industrialisation of cattle rearing in covered or open yards means that fields are going back to arable again, to produce cattle feed, with the destruction of ancient ridge and furrow by ploughing.

By the 18th century most of the common fields had been inclosed, a process by which landowners got together to consolidate their strips into the pattern of fields that can be seen today. Heavy horses, in pairs rather than teams of eight oxen, pulling lighter iron ploughs could work the larger fields much more efficiently and resulted in straight ridges.